Tuesday, July 06, 2010
First Person, Present Tense (And Other Risks)
This is a guest post by J. Mark Bertrand, whose novel Back on Murder is just releasing. Back on Murder is a well written police procedural that I recommend. The protagonist's voice is believable and compelling, and pulls you right into the story. Good police procedurals aren't easy to do--the voice of the detective is everything. Mark has gotten it right.
The story made me do it.
Writers are always giving that excuse, but in this case it happens to be true.
When I started writing my crime novel Back on Murder, the first in a series starring Houston homicide detective Roland March, I experimented with several different points of view. One version was omniscient, written like straight reportage. Another came out in the standard third-person with switches from one character to another at the scene breaks.
I still have these early drafts, and they’re not half bad. But they’re not right, either.
It turns out Roland March has a voice, and the only way to get that voice on paper was first person, present tense. For the entire story—nearly 400 pages—we never get outside March’s head. Everything we see, everything we discover is filtered through his sensibility.
They say first person is hard to pull off, that it imposes limits on an author, testing his mettle. True enough. In Back on Murder, I can’t jump to the villain’s point of view to narrate an important scene. There’s no mechanism for giving the reader information March doesn’t have, or tying up loose ends that March himself can’t connect.
But for me, these limits are part of what makes the story work.
Every investigation is a quest for truth, an effort at putting together the pieces to determine what really happened. In real life, a homicide detective like March doesn’t get to jump into a suspect’s point of view and see how things really went down. Instead, he’s left to reconstruct the story based on second-hand accounts, physical evidence, experience and primal instinct.
By sticking with March through the twists and turns, the reader gets a glimpse of what it’s really like—complete with the frustrations and uncertainties that are so often left out.
At the Mayhem in the Midlands Conference in May, I was on a panel discussing which sort of character is more fun to write, the hero or the villain. Contrarian that I am, I chose Option C, the anti-hero. That in itself is a risk. When your first person narrator carries the weight of the story on his shoulders, a lot depends on how readers react to him. If you don’t make him immediately heroic, immediately likable, you’re taking an extraordinary risk.
March is neither immediately heroic nor immediately likable. He’s a hard man in a profession that chews up even the hardest. And he’s anything but honest with himself. To survive, he probably can’t be.
If you identify with him right off the bat, you’re a sick puppy. (But then, aren’t we all?)
Another risk? Did I mention that Roland March isn’t a Christian? Given the label, given the expectations that come with it, this one might come as a shock. Though he’s surrounded by both sincere piety and the excesses of big box religion, March is as much an outsider to all this as he is most everything else. He observes and occasionally eviscerates … but does not give in.
The story made me do it.
Writers with a book coming out are expected to engage in a certain amount of hype. In disclosing all these things, cataloging the reasons you might not like Roland March, it might seem that I’m going against type. That I’m taking yet another risk.
But all these risks are calculated, including this one. I wouldn’t have taken them if I didn’t think there were readers ready and waiting. I’m no psychologist, but it should be obvious by now that I’m engaging in a little reverse psychology, hoping the things that are most risky about my artistic choices are the ones you will love the most.
I love shadows and ambiguity. I love minor chords. While I can cheer for the unabashed single-cell hero, there’s something deeply appealing in the thought that, in fiction as in life, sometimes the people who move the ball forward are as dogged and damaged as anyone else. They don’t do the right thing because of some profound inner virtue. They aren’t heroic, maybe aren’t even likable on the surface, and yet apart from them the sun would set forever.
If you can root for a man like that, a man not so different than yourself, then I haven’t taken such a risk after all.
-- J. Mark Bertrand
J. Mark Bertrand is the author of the crime thriller Back on Murder, featuring Houston homicide detective Roland March. The next book in the series, Pattern of Wounds, will release in the summer of 2011. Other credits include the nonfiction title Rethinking Worldview and the bestselling romantic suspense novel Beguiled, co-authored with Deeanne Gist.
Back on Murder in paperback from Amazon, $10.19
On the Kindle, $9.99
In paperback from christianbook.com, $9.99
On the Nook from Barnes and Noble, $9.99
In paperback from Barnes and Noble, $10.79